In Performance: the Juan that got away | Calendar | Chicago Reader

In Performance: the Juan that got away 

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"I really do think I'm living in a John Hughes film sometimes, and that's just utterly ridiculous," says performance artist Gina Lovoi. Her new autobiographical show, The Whole Juan Situation, bears some similarities to Hughes's mid-80s work; in it a crazy crush that transcends social barriers torments a plucky heroine who is surrounded by the color pink.

Last summer while working as a waitress at the Art Institute's Garden Restaurant, Lovoi began a complicated relationship with a noncommittal busboy named Juan. The Whole Juan Situation tells their story, which is less happily resolved than Molly Ringwald's problems usually were in the final reel.

The story is a detailed saga of disappointment and humiliation. Since Lovoi draws only from personal experience and doesn't fictionalize, the setting is particularly intimate. "I want to have an impact," she explains, "and the only way it's going to do that is really pouring it out as I see it." The witty writing, lighthearted design scheme, and playful use of stage technology can't disguise the discomfort Lovoi experiences when she recalls last summer. In its most effective moments, the goofiness actually amplifies the sense of pain; but there's the occasional hint that it's a crutch she uses to bear the memory. The forced laughter some sections are met with suggests that it serves a similar purpose for at least part of the audience.

While working at the Garden, Lovoi was struck by the unspoken hierarchy that cast her as a social superior to the primarily Mexican bus staff. In a spirit she now mocks as naive, she set out to bridge the gap and establish friendships with all of her coworkers.

But altruism alone cannot explain the opening line she tried on Juan. In last summer's oppressive heat Lovoi asked him how to say "I'm hot" in Spanish. A summer of high hopes, dashed dreams, and record temperatures ensued. Though he spoke little English, Juan turned out to be a skillful flirt. One day by the restaurant's fountain Lovoi tried to find out if he was single by asking the name of his girlfriend. Nearly a year later his coy answer melts the audience's heart the way it did Lovoi's: "Maybe you?"

Sadly, Juan talked the talk but didn't walk the walk. All summer long Lovoi's advances were passively accepted, but they inevitably ended in frustration. The situation reached its nadir one night after the restaurant had closed for the season. Lovoi and Juan had made an appointment to finally consummate their relationship. (Previously they'd enjoyed a bout of what she calls "dry humping.") Juan said he'd call that evening, but the phone never rang.

Into last autumn she tried to engineer "chance" meetings by taking catering jobs with a company Juan worked for and by lingering on downtown streets she knew he frequented. She says her behavior bordered on the obsessive but emphatically denies she stalked him. "Maybe it's just middle-class manners, but I have no intent of making someone really uncomfortable," she says. "I kind of knew where Juan lived and I didn't go over there and I didn't call him. These things are really infringing on a person's life and I in no way want to go there."

Juan has since moved back to Mexico, though he didn't mention exactly where. "He was probably too scared I would go stalk him in Mexico," Lovoi jokes.

The show includes brief impersonations of most of Lovoi's coworkers, including a bitchy queen, a cranky chain-smoker, and a Jamaican pothead. Juan is noticeably absent from this gallery. "I wanted to make Juan the most mysterious character in the whole thing," Lovoi explains. "I want nobody to really know what he was thinking." That might work for someone like Lovoi, who says she has never led anyone on, but to the rest of us Juan's actions may seem painfully familiar.

Even though we only hear Lovoi's side of the story, it seems that Juan is a generally nice guy. It's not hard to imagine that he returned Lovoi's flirtations either to avoid hurting her feelings or because he didn't know how else to react. Whatever the reason, Juan's approach is guaranteed to fail. For anyone who's been on his side of this familiar equation, the show can be both eye-opening and gut-wrenching.

Though he consistently rejected and disappointed her, Lovoi always held out hope and gave him another chance. Optimism is usually considered a virtue, especially where romance is concerned, and the giddiness it inspires adds to Lovoi's onstage appeal. But it's frustrating to hear how many times she staked her happiness on the attention of a man who clearly would not deliver. Still, there's a perversely entertaining thrill to be had in joining Lovoi as she skips merrily down the road to her own personal hell; daytime TV aficionados will recognize it right away. "The only thing that's missing is Ricki Lake interviewing me," Lovoi says.

Lovoi performs The Whole Juan Situation at 8 PM Thursday, June 13 and 20, at the Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland. Tickets are $6, $4 for students. Call 275-5255.

--John Sanchez

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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